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Glass Cases, White Spaces: A peek inside the University's public museums

Hannah Chin/Daily
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By Jennifer Xu, Senior Arts Editor
Published September 26, 2011

Museum. The word stands calcified as soon as it leaves your lips, like Grecian columns with straight-backed arches and gilded chandeliers slinking along the walls of the Louvre and the Hermitage. It suggests impenetrability. A slight, sneering inaccessibility.

Behind the exhibit is a sea of sterile white. Objects and viewers are divided by glass. Museums make us uncomfortable, forcing us to reconcile with the fact that the things we have created can have a standing life much, much longer than the human race does.

Perspective plays a large role in creating these biases, whether they're from a terrible childhood vacation or a grouchy curator screaming at you to stay at least 10 feet away from the exhibit. But museums are organic, living, changing institutions. And each of the seven public museums at the University — the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, the Exhibit Museum of Natural History, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, the Nichols Arboretum and the Detroit Observatory — challenges this definition in several ways. Ultimately, these establishments merely act as tools of our self-signification, and what a museum has to present has more to do with what society expects from it than what it expects of society.

The age of collecting

Though the relationship between people and things has existed since the beginning of time, the 18th-century aesthetic of curatorial thought was what gave rise to the modern museum. The artists and painters of the Age of Exploration viewed the way their minds worked very much like the collections they maintained — fabulous collections that ranged from rare butterflies to old coins, botanical specimens to “suckling pigs” (as Foucault introduced in his preface to “The Order of Things”) — and ascribed a separate meaning to the items they assembled and took out of circulation. These collections were eventually displayed to the public and deemed “cabinets of curiosity.”

“You have people traveling all over the world, things coming to Europe, things people had never seen before,” said Prof. Ray Silverman, director of the Museum Studies program at the University. “And people admiring them and putting them into these rooms — jam-packed, creating these incredible spectacles.”

Context, the cloud of classification that surrounds an object and influences people’s expectations of it, evolved a little later. Darwin and his contemporaries ushered in the Age of Reason and influenced its corresponding practices: grouping the objects into taxonomies, being preoccupied with authenticity and guaranteeing that one object could be representative of the whole — among others.

The University’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History stands as testament to these 19th century ideals — the skeleton of an ancient sea creature hanging tenuously off the ceiling, chasing its prey; a magnificent diorama of a reptile-like animal prowling the lands; a display case crowded with specimens taken directly off the pages of Audubon’s “Birds of America.” Director of Education Kira Berman refers to the museum’s organization as a “great chain of being,” with the primordial trilobites at the bottom of the chain and the Planetarium and space-age discoveries peering benevolently from the top.

At the entrance of the museum’s Hall of Evolution sits a massive hunk of petrified wood, one of Berman’s favorite objects in the building.

“We use it to talk about the process of fossilization,” she said. “How water carries the minerals into the tissue of the tree while the tissue is still there, fills into the interstitial spaces and then eventually the wood itself rots away — leaving only the minerals.”

Of course, not all object collections consist of decayed skeletons and hollowed-out rocks. At the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and the Nichols Arboretum, the living and blooming flowers, fruits and vegetables take center stage. The phrase “botanical garden” has a monastic, medicinal bent to it — Mendel’s pea plants spring to mind — and indeed, the first area of its kind sprung from the medieval “physic gardens” that doctors maintained to treat their patients. While nowadays the term has atrophied into something with more of a public face, the plants inside certainly haven’t.

“It’s like a living museum,” said Prof. Bob Grese, director of the Botanical Gardens and the Arboretum.

For Grese, the purpose of the museum always has been to educate the public on the greater concerns of plant conservation and maintenance, whether through an interactive display of edible cocoa plants or a stunning recreation of a desert biome.

“I think people have always been dependent on plants for food, for medicine, for all kinds of things,” Grese explained. “Today, people don’t recognize their connection quite as readily. They’re not as involved in collecting plants that they might use for medicine, or they buy food in grocery stores and don’t necessarily connect with growing it. So in some ways that becomes a real opportunity or challenge for us in the botanical gardens to try to re-forge that connection.”

About six miles southwest from the Botanical Gardens, another museum is striving to reconstruct society’s connection to its past, but through materials. The Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry — a place housed within the University’s Dental School but supported entirely by private donors — strives to propagate the history of dentistry to the public, one largely rooted in the evolution of materials and technology. Director Shannon O’Dell narrates a tale of self-sustainable dentists falling victim to larger corporations: companies consolidating and buying up smaller companies; and the movement from rubber and ivory to plastics, resins and acrylics.

“That’s the same thing with a lot of technologies. The same thing has happened, all across the board,” O’Dell said.

Regardless of the collections they maintain, the directors all look upon their roles as a sort of stewardship between the public and the objects they oversee.

“We play a curatorial role in plants,” Grese said of the Botanical Gardens and the Arboretum. “Just like (art museums) are taking care of individual works of art, we’re taking care of gardens, individual plants or natural areas.”

Aura, authenticity and context

Perhaps most paramount to your experience in a museum is the idea that the object in front of you is one unreplicated in any other place or time.

“I’ve had experiences in museums where I’ve picked up an object, a tool that was made 10,000 years ago by a person,” Silverman said. “To hold that in your hand, and to say, ‘I’m holding something that was made by somebody 10,000 years ago,’ that object has … that specialness about it.”

Museums have evolved techniques to fabricate this special aura. Oftentimes, visitors are not permitted to touch the objects. Obscured from view in thick glass boxes, the items are separated by large white spaces, the perimeter roped off — giving rise to the ultimate aesthetic contemplation.

But what is the real definition of “aura?” Does the object itself exude some sort of a magical quality, or is it something artificially derived?

“All that is going on in your head,” Silverman explained. “Because objects have no intrinsic meaning or value, it’s always ascribed to the object by people.”

Of course, the rarity of an object is not always its greatest selling point. It can often be the power of a story that makes the item so transformative.

“The thing I like most (about working in the dentistry museum) is the research — investigating an individual that we’re trying to tell their story,” O’Dell said. “Where I’m really digging through the archives trying to find out about them — that’s the most fun.”

The quality of aura as a requisite for a museum is one challenged at the Botanical Gardens. As you walk through the Gardens’ many nature paths, the plants along the boundary brush against your legs, almost forcing you to interact with them. One of the institution’s most prized features is the Gaffield Children’s Garden, a fairylike area with exhibits ranging from an edible flower demonstration to a series of lilting bells that evoke Keats’s Grecian lyre to slabs of concrete taken off the roof of the Betsy Barbour Residence Hall on which visitors can make etchings.

A botanical garden’s authenticity is synonymous with another cultural buzzword: endangered. The mission of a botanical garden is more about propagation than preservation — to spread rare species among areas that have lost the capability of sustaining them.

The differences between the role of an art museum and a science museum is more difficult to articulate.

“I think the main difference is that we’re looking at context for the objects that we treat,” Berman said of the Exhibit Museum, after several attempts to answer the question. “We’re looking at what the objects tell us, whereas in an art museum you’re looking more at the form.”

Context does seem to play a larger part in the interpretation of educationally minded museums than it does in more aesthetically driven ones.

Berman recalled a time when a different kind of context took center stage. In medieval bestiaries (illustrated compendiums of the natural life of an animal) if a person were to look up the information for fox, he would find not only the biological history of the fox, but also the symbolism of the fox, and poetry about foxes — all of which were considered parts of the whole of what the object was.

“So there was a time when the part that things play was much more interwoven with the things themselves,” Berman said.

Silverman contended with the question by turning to personal experience. In his own research, he works with the visual cultures of Africa. Many objects he works with are found in both art museums and cultural history museums. He has found in many cases the object itself doesn’t matter, but the way people have classified the object and the value and meaning they give to it vary depending on the context it is placed in.

Berman wants to return the Exhibit Museum back to a time when cultural stories could be told once again, and for context to reclaim its mythological quality.

“I can continue to love the fact that early settlers in this country thought that mastodon skulls were the skulls of Cyclops,” she said. “I continue to teach that during (docent training sessions), saying, ‘Here’s a story that can show you the different ways of looking at that one object.’

“I think that we’re beginning to be able to tell those kinds of stories again — to be more inclusive, rather than saying, ‘Well, that’s not objective, so we can’t display that.’ ”

A new direction

Recently, museums have been undergoing a radical change.

“Whereas originally museums were about things, there’s been a shift in thinking that museums are really about people. They’re social institutions,” Silverman said.

Fundamentally, a person will visit a museum with his or her own individual way of thinking, and as a result that person experiences what’s offered up at the museum differently from anyone else there — in spite of the relative stasis of the objects themselves.

Originally, however, the absolute model for a museum was for an authority on the topic, the curator, to offer up his own narrative on the exhibit to a passive audience. To Silverman, it resembled a monologue: “Here it is, take it or leave it.”

Now, museums have gained reputation as more dialogical spaces, with the audience, the curator and museum conversing with each other — a relationship constantly in flux.

“They’re becoming places where exhibits can be multi-vocal,” Berman said. “There’s not just one voice of authority and there can be more forums for discussion.”

Of course, this assembly of voices is not without its critics. Especially within the practice of digitalization — museums putting up the entirety of their collections on the Internet in an effort to become more accessible to the public — people question whether the physical institution will lose some of its hold on the public audience.

“There’s been a lot of dust that’s been kicked up in the air as a result of (digitalization),” Silverman said. “There are some people that are running around like Chicken Little saying, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling, museums are extinct, nobody’s going to want to come anymore because it’s all available on the Web.’

“But I’m a really firm believer in the object, the original object — what we refer to as the ‘aura’ of the original. And the fact that that is something that will ensure the museums’ future.”

For Grese, maintaining the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens has helped him to understand people’s relationship with nature.

“For a lot of people, having a place to go out and understand plants, to reflect on their relationship with the natural world … is important,” he said. “It’s not just conserving nature by itself but showing how people relate to it.”

Grese’s efforts for the museum’s future are rooted in sustainability. The Michigan Solar House (otherwise known as the MiSo* house), an entry in the 2005 Solar Decathlon and designed by the University’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, sits on one side of the Botanical Gardens. Within the house, all the appliances are powered by the sunlight outside and the plants that frame the front yard.

Over time, he is also trying to reduce the areas where the lawn is mowed.

“The goal is to get to a point … where we won’t do as much planting, a buffer that provides better habitat value,” he said. “A mowed lawn is not very diverse. The taller grasses and blooming plants have more of a habitat value and food value for butterflies and bird species.”

To create a place where new objects spring forward from old ones is an interesting consideration — a permutation of the concept of “aura.”

All the directors admit that running their respective museums has influenced their experiences of visiting one.

“We joke around in the museum studies program that once you’ve been through this course, museums will not be the same for you,” Silverman said. “Before, you go into a museum of art and you go to see the art. Now … your experience of looking at the art is going to be competing with you thinking about, ‘OK, well, how are they fixing the light?’ and, ‘What kinds of colors are they using on the wall?’ and also to look at how other people are engaging with the exhibits.”

Berman described herself as “jaded.”

“I look with more of a professional eye than some people,” she said. “I look at things that people don’t see.

“But, when I go with my six-and-a-half year old to a museum, I’m just like anyone else. I think that museums are places where we form memories and we find inspiration. That’s what the word means, right? ‘Muse.’ ”


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